Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 63, May 14, 2013: “Police, media must consider plight of those caught in linguistic dragnet”

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Police, media must consider plight of those caught in linguistic dragnet
Racialized terms thrown about by cops and parroted by news outlets have consequences

The Japan Times, JUST BE CAUSE Column 63, May 14, 2013
By ARUDOU Debito
Version with links to sources

A national media exerts a powerful influence over the lives of members of its society. For example, rumors or untruths disseminated through print or broadcast can destroy livelihoods and leave reputations in ruins.

This is why judiciaries provide mechanisms to keep media accountable. In Japan, laws against libel and slander exist to punish those who put out misleading or false information about individuals.

But what about broadcasting misleading or false information about groups? That’s a different issue, because Japan has no laws against “hate speech” (ken’o hatsugen). Consequently, Japanese media get away with routine pigeonholing and stereotyping of people by nationality and social origin.

An example? The best ones can be found in Japan’s crime reportage. If there is a crime where the perpetrator might be a non-Japanese (NJ), the National Police Agency (and by extension the media, which often parrots police reports without analysis) tends to use racialized typology in its search for suspects.

The NPA’s labels include hakujin for Caucasians (often with Hispanics lumped in), kokujin for Africans or the African diaspora, burajirujin-kei for all South Americans, and ajia-kei for garden-variety “Asians” (who must somehow not look sufficiently “Japanese,” although it’s unclear clear how that limits the search: aren’t Japanese technically “Asian” too?).

Typology such as this has long been criticized by scholars of racism for lacking objectivity and scientific rigor. Social scientist Paul R. Spickard puts it succinctly: “Races are not types.”

Even hard scientists such as geneticist J.C. King agree: “Both what constitutes a race and how one recognizes a racial difference are culturally determined. Whether two individuals regard themselves as of the same or of different races depends not on the degree of similarity of their genetic material but on whether history, tradition, and personal training and experiences have brought them to regard themselves as belonging to the same groups or to different groups . . . there are no objective boundaries to set off one subspecies from another.”

The NPA has in recent years gotten more sophisticated with its descriptors. One might see tōnan ajia-jin fū for Southeast Asians, chūtō-kei for Middle Easterners, indo-kei for all peoples from the Indian subcontinent or thereabouts, or the occasional chūgokujin-kei, firipin-kei, etc., for suspects involved in organized crime or the “water trade.”

But when the suspect is of uncertain ethnic origin but somehow clearly “not Japanese,” the media’s default term is gaikokujin-fū (foreign-looking).

[For example, do a search for 外国人風 at http://sitesearch.asahi.com/.cgi/sitesearch/sitesearch.pl]

Lumping suspects into a “Japanese” or “not Japanese” binary is in fact extremely unhelpful during a search for a suspected criminal, because it puts any NJ, or visible minority in Japan (including many Japanese citizens), under the dragnet.

Not only does this normalize racial profiling; it also encourages the normalization and copycatting of stereotypes. I have seen cases where people assumed that “foreigners” were involved in a crime just because they saw people who “looked different” or “acted different” (which has in the past encouraged criminals to adopt accented speech, or blame fictitious foreign perps to throw cops off their trail).

[See for example http://www.debito.org/aichibikergangpatsy.htmlhttp://www.debito.org/?p=841http://www.debito.org/?p=3060]

There are two other bad habits reinforced by publicly racializing criminality. One is the creation of a public discourse (discussed many times on these pages) on how “foreigners” in particular are a source of crime, and thus destabilizing to Japanese society.

The other is that any careless typology winds up associating nationality/phenotype/social origin with criminal behavior, as in, “He’s a criminal because he’s Chinese.”

Both habits must be stopped because they are, statistically, damned incorrect.

How should the NPA remedy this?

Easy, really. They should amend, if not outright abandon, any race-based typology when reporting crime to the media. The police and the media should try this instead:

1) When there is a suspect on the run, and the public is being alerted to be on the lookout, then give phenotypical details (e.g., gender, height, hair color) — the same as you would for any Japanese fugitive. Do not reveal any nationality (or use the generic word “foreign”). Why? Because nationality is not a matter of phenotype.

2) When there is a suspect in custody for interrogation (as in, not yet charged for prosecution), then it is not necessary to give phenotypical or nationality details. Why? Because an accusation without charge is not yet a crime statistic, so those details are irrelevant to the case. It is also not yet a fact of the case that this particular crime has been committed by this particular person — innocent before proven guilty, remember.

3) When there is an arrest, giving out details on specific nationality is permissible, as it is now a fact of the case. Pointing out phenotypical details, however, is unnecessary, as it may draw undue attention to how criminals supposedly “look.” (Readers will have their curiosity sated by seeing the inevitable photograph, now also a fact of the case.)

4) When there is a conviction, refer to 3 above. But when there is an acquittal, the police and media should mention the nationality of the former suspect in a public statement, to counteract the social damage caused by any media coverage that may have inadvertently linked criminality to a nationality.

Remember that at any time during criminal procedure, it is never necessary to use the generic word “foreign,” what with all the potential for overgeneralization and stereotyping. In addition, the police should repeatedly caution the media against any tone associating nationality with criminality.

Now, why am I devoting a column to this? Because the media must not only watch the watchers; it must watch itself. I also know that policymakers read the Japan Times Community pages and this column, because they have changed their policies after withering criticisms here.

Remedial actions inspired by this space include the Takamadonomiya All Japan Junior High School English Speech Contests amending their rules to disqualify “native English speakers” instead of just “all foreigners” (Zeit Gist, Jan. 6, 2004), NTT DoCoMo repealing their “security deposit” for all foreigners only (ZG, Aug. 29, 2002), the Cabinet’s human rights survey rewriting questions that once made human rights “optional” for foreign humans (ZG, Oct. 23, 2007) and, most significantly, the National Research Institute of Police Science discontinuing its racist “foreigner DNA” research scheme for crime scenes (ZG, Jan. 13, 2004).

Here’s hoping that the police and media realize what careless reportage does to NJ residents, and start monitoring themselves better. It’s time to make amends for all the social damage done thus far.

After all, both are generally more careful if the suspects are Japanese. Anyone ready to say in public “He’s a criminal because he’s from Osaka”? Thought not. Consistency regardless of nationality or social origin, please.


Arudou Debito’s “Japanese Only: The Otaru Onsens Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan” is now on sale as a 10th anniversary e-book on Amazon for ¥975. See www.debito.org/japaneseonly.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community pages of the month. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

5 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 63, May 14, 2013: “Police, media must consider plight of those caught in linguistic dragnet”

  • #2…innocent until proven guilty.

    We all know that doesn’t really apply here in Japan. Innocence and guilt are very much used in the same context to the point of “it doesn’t matter”, so long as the harmony is maintained. Taking this view, “a crime” is a very ‘western social’ construct which the Japanese do not subscribe to. Only harmony.

    The Japanese may cite written “Laws” from the 8th century with the Yoro Code of 718. But these “Laws”, like any laws were written around the social fabric of the society, in this case the feudal laws. Having different laws for imperials or daimyo’s etc didn’t help either, especially when juxtaposed against “modern” society and human rights.

    So during the Meiji period, under pressure from “those pesky foreigners” Japan was coerced to change its Laws to be more international to allow rights of extra-territoriality, as those were the aspirations of Japan at that time. The fact that most modern (post Meiji) Japanese laws are a mixed hodgepodge of English, German, French laws etc is evidence of this. You can still find references to local Parisian rules or German Bath houses from the 19th Century law, verbatim, in today’s Japanese law. What..no spell checker?? 🙂

    Having introduced a “lay jury” system only recently, and still not recording interviews is also evidence that the concept of guilt and innocence and more importantly “the Law” and what it represents, is sufficient evidence to suggest that “Law” is an ill defined term for Japanese, as it has no meaning to them, historically/culturally. Only Harmony and Image. Thus any “Law” is fluid and not black and white as it is in Western societies. The Laws written by the English over a 1000 years ago by King/prince of Kent..er…forgot his name (George I think), in the 8th century and then becoming written down for all English much later by the magna carta in 1215, is just evidence of a country who values the difference between right/wrong and equal rights for “all”. However, this is an anathema to Japanese culture. As an example, here is an excerpt from the Magan Carta written 800 years ago:

    “..(41) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land…”

    The Japanese in the 21st century still struggles to have such “sentiments” in their cobbled together rules to appease the wider international community. Thus the “Law” and innocence/guilt is a very fluid and un-Japanese definition. It’s no wonder they care little about implementing international laws like human rights etc.

    I still find it amusing that the Japanese like to use the “Gaijin” aspect when referring to someone who is not Japanese…since Globally, the Japanese “race” accounts for approximately 1% of the worlds population. So, who is the real minority?

    I like to ‘shock’ friends when out and about in town. If an expensive luxury car drives by with a young looking driver, I simply say, oh look another Yakuza, and see if the penny drops.. 😉

  • @john k

    The whole thing is heavily politicized. The Japanese authorities in the past and present have purposely used elusive and vague laws in order to tighten their grips on their reign and justify their illegitimate authority. It would be unwise to label this as a “cultural” phenomenon, when in reality it is politicized.

    There needs to be some kind of a peaceful political revolution in Japan.

  • WanderingDave says:

    The law has taken on a disembodied life of its own in the minds of Westerners, and sometimes it takes an encounter with a very different cultural history like Japan to remind us that the law supervenes upon what the people want, at least those in positions of power and influence. Laws that don’t match what most people bound by them want will be widely disobeyed and will have loopholes found around them, by anyone who can get away with it. Rules about acceptable and unacceptable actions usually become part of a widely agreed-upon unwritten code of conduct and carry real social penalties for transgressors long before they’re codified into laws with criminal penalties, not the other way around.

    The idea of indicting someone, anyone, so that harmony may be maintained is really an ancient form of proto-justice. Look up the etymology of the word “scapegoat”. Some great upset to the order of the universe has occurred, and someone — hopefully the right person but in any event SOMEONE — needs to be sacrificed in order to set things right.

    I think the Japanese notion of “wa” is fundamentally incompatible with Western ideas of fairness, and nowhere is this more evident than what’s considered a satisfactory outcome in a dispute. Westerners consider justice served if everyone who inflicted suffering is punished in a prescribed way, and everyone made to suffer needlessly is given opportunity for redress. Japanese consider it a favorable outcome if everyone comes out of the dispute with their face intact, even if this sometimes requires those undeservedly harmed sucking it up and saying “Oh well, that’s life.” I think that’s easier to do, psychologically, when you don’t have an ideal in your head that society is evolving toward a state where all people are treated fairly and equally at all times. In my experience, Japanese are instead raised with the idea that they should cling tightly to and cherish those who have accepted them and helped raise them, because beyond the campfire light lies an unpredictable and perilous world full of people just waiting to exploit you.

    I reckon it’s stunning, even disconcerting, for Westerners who know Japan well to realize that the nation’s relatively equitable wealth distribution and relatively low levels of social instability and human rights abuses against native locals in no way spring from an underlying belief in the fundamental dignity and equality of all human beings. More to the point, Japan has arguably done a better job producing widespread subjective fairness, equality, and justice in practice than cultures who uphold these very things as ideals!

    The most disconcerting realization of all is that those with an ethnic difference from the majority population, no matter their legal status or self-identification, will always be at far greater risk of being the ones whose heads roll for the sake of protecting the “wa”. Their presence is usually a neverending source of uncertainty, and even if accepted into an in-group, their presence often requires an explanation to out-group people, which gets awkward. Setting up a NJ to pay in full for an upsetting and unsolved transgression s/he MAY have conceivably been connected to in some way thus kills two birds with one stone. It sets people’s minds at ease that things have been set right and they’re safe, without having to sacrifice anyone with deep roots in the community and setting the stage for a long-term vendetta, and at the same time removes someone who was an unwanted source of attention and uncertainty, albeit through no fault of his/her own.

    I would honestly advise anyone planning on immigrating to Japan to be mentally and emotionally prepared to accept the fairly good odds of whatever in-group they’ve worked long and hard to work their way into someday turning on them without warning or recourse, because it’s the most convenient solution to some dilemma that’s arisen, and you’re relatively expendable. Granted some Japanese, like people everywhere, are good-hearted people who’d really like you and feel deeply anguished about blackballing you (classic “giri” vs. “ninjou” dilemma). But that doesn’t mean they’d stand on principle and refrain from doing it, at least by tacitly going along. After all, to go against the group and vouch for you would risk ostracization for them as well, and unlike you (they’d probably rationalize) they have no other home to go back to, no other in-group that accepts them, and as I wrote a few paragraphs back, it’s jungle out there.

    — Fantastic essay, but how does it relate to this blog entry?

  • “I would honestly advise anyone planning on immigrating to Japan to be mentally and emotionally prepared to accept the fairly good odds of whatever in-group they’ve worked long and hard to work their way into someday turning on them without warning or recourse, because it’s the most convenient solution to some dilemma that’s arisen, and you’re relatively expendable”

    I think we have all experienced this, and it should be included in a newcomers handbook, like the one Debito authored. Its these unwritten, unspoken truths that people shelve once they leave Japan and they should be exposed.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I didn’t find anything new about the article, since it is a recurring theme. But it gives a reminder to the readers–regardless of their respective positions. Come to think of it, I sometimes feel like JBC functions as a Site Gag (or Sight Gag, maybe) for inviting a bunch of posters responding to the point of view you address. As you know, most of negative comments are made by some kind of whacky, disgruntled people whose only mission is to cloak into the online public media and de-sensitize people’s mindset on Japanese society through nonsensical personal attacks and fallacy arguments.

    I wonder such low-brow publicity stunt–like apologist’s un-Socratic apology would be counted as the ironic, satiric, parodic, and/or carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture, as shown in this kind of blog. (http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/category/sight-gags/)

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